Tuesday, January 09, 2007

“Political Science” / Randy Newman

We all slow down as we get older and grayer, and Randy Newman has gone completely gray -- he seems content to be a soundtrack composer nowadays (considering that his uncles were Alfred and Lionel Newman, that’s like taking over the family business). Good for you, Randy – I was as thrilled as anybody when you got your long overdue Oscar for Toy Story 2.

But I do miss the mordant humor of those 1970s albums like 12 Songs and Good Old Boys. My first Newman album was 1971’s Randy Newman Live, and I saw him sing (on a double bill with Ry Cooder) in Northhampton, Massachusetts, in 1974. Being a Randy Newman fan in those days made me feel I was in on some big clever secret. Randy seemed slightly out of step with contemporary pop music – if his songs sold at all, it was through cover versions by folks like Judy Collins and Linda Ronstadt and Three Dog Night, who never really conveyed their irony. I’m grateful that Alan Price and Harry Nilsson, at least, covered his songs with the caustic perspective intact.

Randy’s always hidden behind unreliable narrators – we know he’s not the slave trader wooing Africans to emigrate in “Sail Away,” but the masses who bought “Short People” and “I Love L.A.” never were sure whether to take his lyrics at face value. “Political Science” (from 1972’s Sail Away) still fools some people. It’s ostensibly sung by an America-Firster who’s baffled that the rest of the world hates the United States (remind you of anyone . . . like, I don’t know, maybe half the current White House administration?). “No one likes us -- I don't know why,” he mulls over the situation, in a puzzled voice. “We give them money, but are they grateful? / No, they're spiteful and they're hateful / They don't respect us, so let's surprise them -- / We'll drop the big one and pulverize them.” (Those rhymes are the work of a master songsmith; I love the suspense of waiting to find out what unexpected word he’ll find to close the deal.)

He starts off with a valid point, okay – then glides so smoothly into his modest proposal, you’re taken off guard. Having come up with this solution, he cheerfully picks up the tempo of his honky-tonk piano, ticking off a list of all the allies who’ve let him down: “Asia's crowded and Europe's too old / Africa is far too hot / And Canada's too cold / And South America stole our name.” The sneaky thing is, everything he says is, on the face of it, true, but it’s such daffy logic -- if you find yourself buying into this, STOP. He gives Australia a pass, but why? Same kind of superficial reasoning: “Don't wanna hurt no kangaroo / We'll build an All American amusement park there / They got surfin', too.” By the third verse he’s off to town, blithely picturing his Dr. Strangelove-ian scenario: “Boom goes London and boom Paree / More room for you and more room for me.” I wince every time he slam-dunks those “booms” with their bombastic chords.

I still grin to remember Randy’s mock innocence as he sang this song, shaking that mad curly mop of hair, looking skyward through wire-rimmed glasses, hands bouncing over the keyboard. I love all those lush, romantic Randy Newman soundtracks – but if you’ve got ‘em in you, Randy, we sure could use a few more songs like “Political Science.” Today more than ever.


Susan said...


I'm a huge Newman fan as well-- I love his most recent album, "Bad Love" which it sound like you may have missed. Also, he's working on a new album and performing some of the songs in concert including "A Few Words in Defense of My Country" which is wonderful-- you can listen to it in draft form, here:


Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks for the link, Susan -- yeah, that's the kind of song I'm talking about. Hooray! Can't wait to hear it, and see how his delivery skews it.